Tradition and Advent

Last Sunday in my homily I spoke about tradition, both Sacred Tradition and all the many traditions in which it is clothed. I also reintroduced, for the season of Advent, the ancient tradition of celebrating Mass ‘towards God’.

When a priest leads the people in prayer it is important that the priest himself not just say prayers, but open his own heart in prayer. For that reason, I want to share something of my own experience standing at the altar ‘towards God’.

As a priest it was deeply moving standing at the altar and being able to look up towards the crucifix and the tabernacle. Three things were in my field of view: the gifts on the altar, the tabernacle, and the crucifix. All of this really helps the priest to be open to God as he stands at the altar and gives a strong sense of what he is doing: leading the people to Jesus in the Cross and in the Eucharist, and through Jesus leading them to the Father. Through the priest, standing at the head of the congregation, the whole community is opened up to the Lord.

Also, having the priest stand between the altar and the people shows clearly the priest’s role as mediator in Christ the one Mediator. When the priest stands on the other side of the altar, he faces one direction, towards the people. Standing between the altar and the people he has to turn to face the people at certain times. That shows the priest as mediator: sometimes he is going towards God on behalf of the people, sometimes he is coming from God to the people, as when he brings the Body of Christ from the altar to those receiving communion.

Continuing on the theme of tradition and applying that specifically to Advent, two traditions immediately come to mind: the Advent Wreath and the Jesse Tree. Both can be brought into the home and the family.

If you ask me about the origin of the Advent Wreath, I will have to be a bit like Tevye in “The Fiddler on the Roof” and say, “I don’t know.” As best I can figure that while it has its roots in medieval Germany it has achieved its present form only by passing through the Lutheran communion and from there back into the Catholic Church.

In any case, the Advent Wreath is very simple: A wreath with four candles, three purple and one rose, one for each Sunday of Advent. The rose candle is for the third Sunday, the Sunday of Joy as the Lord’s coming draws nearer.

A family could very easily place and Advent Wreath on or near the family dinner table and light the appropriate candles at the family meals: One candle for the first week of Advent; two during the second week; three (including the rose candle) during the third week. Finally, starting on the Fourth Sunday all four candles will be ablaze in anticipation of the Christmas celebration.

The Jesse Tree is first of all the family tree of Jesus, who is descended from David, the son of Jesse. It starts from Jesse because of the famous prophecy of Isaiah, A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. (Is 11:1)

The Jesse Tree then became a theme in medieval art. Perhaps the most famous Jesse Tree is the glorious stained glass window in the Cathedral of Chartres, France. Jesse lies at the bottom of the stained glass window and the tree springs up from his loins containing images of four of the kings descended from him, then the Virgin Mary, then at the top of the window Jesus sits enthroned.

As the tradition has developed it has become a beautiful way to teach children, during Advent, about some main Old Testament persons or events that led the way to Jesus’ birth. What is needed is a small tree (real or artificial) and some creativity. Each day of Advent the family can fashion for the tree one ornament symbolizing something from the creation of the world to Jesus’ birth.

For example:



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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